BISHOPS, ELDERS AND DEACONS
(NOTICE: This article explains the offices of a scriptural local church. There are, however, no scripturally organized local churches nor are there any God-sent pastors in these last days of great apostasy.)
There are only three offices in local church government, namely bishop, elder and deacon. The term "minister" is not a scriptural term for an office, but a general term that could apply to anyone who is a minister of the Word (including an apostle, a prophet or an evangelist), or to a deacon who is a minister of temporal needs. It behooves us to use scriptural terminology based on right concepts of God's plan for church government and leadership.
Much confusion in the Church has resulted from an inadequate translation of the Greek word episkopos in the King James Version. The same Greek word can be used for the office of "bishop" and as a general term for "overseer" (bishop and elder). All bishops are overseers, but not all overseers are bishops. Elders are overseers also, under the authority of the bishop. In all instances episkopos should be translated "overseer" as in the King James II Version and in all but one case in the New American Standard Bible. The word episkopos, derived from epi (upon, over) and skopos (to look carefully, to watch), means to overlook, hence the English word "overseer."
To add to the confusion there is a misunderstanding, by many, of the term "elder" in the New Testament. The Greek word presbuteros translated "elder," literally means "an old man." It denotes merely an old man, or one who holds the office of elder in a local church.
None of the apostles held the office of elder, but late in Peter's ministry (perhaps thirty-five years after Pentecost) when he was an old man, he wrote his first epistle, referring to himself as an old man, or more precisely as a fellow-elder: "The elders [presbuteros, old men] which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder [sumpresbuteros, fellow-old man]..." (1 Pet. 5:1).
Likewise, the apostle John never held the office of elder. But, being an old man, he referred to himself as an elder (perhaps sixty-five years after Pentecost) when he wrote his second epistle. In the greeting he penned, "The elder [presbuteros, old man] unto the elect lady and her children..." (2 Jn. 1:1). The elderly apostle used the same word in the greeting of his third epistle: "The elder [presbuteros] unto the well beloved Gaius..." (3 Jn. 1:1).
Some Christians teach that the word "elder" (presbuteros) and the word "pastor" (poimen) are synonymous. But this is incorrect and has resulted, in part, from a misunderstanding of the above truths. The word "pastors" (poimen) is used only once in the New Testament, and that is in conjunction with the word "teachers" (didaskalos) (Eph. 4:11). This refers to one who is gifted as a "shepherd" (poimen) of God's people, namely the bishop, who "shepherds" (poimaino) the local church. Of course, the elders shepherd the local church too, but under the leadership and authority of the bishop. Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus (evidently Timothy had not yet been appointed bishop) to "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd [poimaino] the church of God..." (Acts 20:28 NASB).
The idea of having a plural ministry with individuals within the congregation having to be accountable to two or more spiritual leaders of equal authority is unscriptural. We, as Christians, should all have a submissive spirit, one to another. But nowhere in the Scriptures, including the Old Testament, does God place a person under the direct supervision of two or more men of equal authority.
We all have direct access to Christ, the Head of the Church. And in the New Dispensation, everyone in the congregation of a local church (except apostles, prophets, and evangelists) should be under the authority of an elder, who is under the authority of a bishop. The bishop is the highest authority (on a human level) in the government of an established local church. Everyone in the local church should be under the leadership of one elder (if there are any) and accountable to him, with right of godly appeal to the bishop. But the bishop is the final authority, always.
Peter exhorted the elders to not let the exercise of their oversight be that of "lording it over those allotted to your charge" (1 Pet. 5:3 NASB). Every elder in a city under one bishop was allotted specific Christians within that city. There were not two or more elders overseeing the same believer. Every new convert should be discipled by, and accountable to one elder until the Lord calls him to a ministry that would take him out from under his authority. This means that the scriptural ministry of elders is full-time work. The idea of plural leadership merely to lessen the burden of ministers while they run a farm or business or are otherwise employed is unscriptural. The bishop should appoint as many elders, according to the leading of the Lord, as needed to meet the discipleship and oversight needs of the flock.
A man called, prepared and placed by God as a bishop will be wise enough to listen to the counsel of the elders, and have a close enough walk with the Lord, to be led by the Holy Spirit in all matters. But final decisions and responsibility rest on the shoulders of the bishop, with eternal consequences. Of course, all ministers of the Word have an awesome responsibility. The Spirit-inspired James wrote, "My brethren, be not many masters [teachers], knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation [judgment]" (James 3:1).
It is important to understand that during the transition from Judaism to the New Covenant, the apostles appointed elders to oversee the local church in their respective cities. The elders were directly under the authority of the apostles until local churches were well established and God raised up men to be bishops. James was the first such overseer. He had authority over the elders in the church at Jerusalem. There is only one local church in a given locality overseen by one bishop and any number of elders.
At the Jerusalem council, held in A.D. 50, James, the bishop of the church in Jerusalem, presided over the meeting of the apostles and the Jerusalem church elders. Evidently no other bishops had been appointed over other local churches at that time, or at least, they did not attend the meeting.
But before Paul wrote the "pastoral epistles" to Timothy and Titus, the two had been appointed as bishops of Ephesus and the island of Crete, respectively. Both bishops received direction from Paul concerning their authority over the elders; and the apostle specifically instructed Titus to ordain or appoint elders in every city on the island.
Elders (old men who were mature and wise) overseeing God's people was a carry-over from the Old Dispensation. At the time of Jesus' first advent the rulers of the synagogue and the elders were essentially the same. Paul makes reference to them in the book of Acts: "...I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women. As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders [presbuterion:] from whom also I received letters unto the brethren...for to be punished" (Acts 22:4-5).
God graciously gave continuity to the oversight of His people during the tumultuous period of transition, first with apostolic authority, then with the bishopric.
Again, the highest authority (under Christ) in local church government is the bishop. He is a poimen (pastor) and an episkopos (overseer), which in the English is also "bishop." In any given city there should be only one (if any) God-called bishop or pastor in authority.
Notwithstanding all the denominational and sectarian division within a local church in these last days, a man raised up by God and placed as the bishop is responsible for the oversight and spiritual well-being of all the brethren living in that city (or perhaps county, or island). This one truth alone indicates the degree to which the Church has fallen away (apostatized) from the truths revealed in Scripture.
Just as the general term "overseers" is used in reference to bishops and elders, so the term "minister" is used in a general sense, and not as an office. In fact, there are no qualifications in Scripture for a "minister;" but there are for overseers (bishops and elders) and deacons. The qualifications for bishops and elders are the same (1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:6-9), except an additional qualification for men holding the office of elder: they must be old enough for all their children (if they have any) to be believers, and, in fact, are believers. The KJV is ambiguous on this last point because in Titus 1:6 the word pistos was translated "faithful." But the same Greek word was rendered "believe" in 1 Timothy 4:3: "...Which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe [pistos] and know the truth." And a few verses later Paul wrote, "...Because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe [pistos]" (1 Tim. 4:10). Titus 1:6 was correctly translated in the KJIIV: "having believing children," or in the NASB: "having children who believe." God is able to save entire households if necessary to raise up qualified men to be elders (for example, Acts 11:14; 16:31-34).
Some elders do not preach or teach, but do administrative or "ruling" work under the direction of the bishop. Paul wrote to Timothy, "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine" (1 Tim. 5:17). But for a man to be qualified for the office of elder, being an overseer (episkopos), he must be able to teach. In the same epistle Paul wrote, "An overseer, then, must be...able to teach" (1 Tim. 3:2 NASB).
All pastors (bishops) labor in the Word and doctrine, but some elders do not. Therefore, it follows that the offices of "pastor" and "elder" are not synonymous.
In addition to discipling, preaching, teaching, and directing the affairs of the local church, another function of elders is anointing with oil to heal the sick (James 5:14-15).
God's requirement for those who hold the office of elder to be old men may seem very strict. Indeed it is. And it may seem inconsistent to have this requirement for elders and not for bishops. (Timothy, the first bishop of Ephesus, was a young man.) Of course, the Lord could also call old men to be bishops. In any case, God, in His wisdom, has decreed that elders must meet this requirement, but not bishops. God's ways are higher than our ways. And if a relatively young man is called by the Lord to be a bishop it behooves him to say, "Behold the slave of God, be it unto me according to thy Word."
Christ, who is Head of the Church, is able to raise up qualified men to oversee His people. But many Christians are content to "do what is right in their own eyes" and suffer the impotency that results from falling away from His truths.
God's wisdom is revealed for governing His sheep when we correctly interpret the Scriptures. On the one hand He desires the maturity and wisdom of the elders. And on the other, He can raise up a wise young man like Timothy to be a bishop (pastor) with authority over an entire local church, including the elders. This can add continuity of leadership as a relatively young bishop leads the flock for many years, during which time elders die and are replaced by others. Of course, a bishop could be martyred or die unexpectedly early in his ministry, in which case it would not matter whether he was young or old. In any event our sovereign Lord can raise up another who has already been prepared according to His foreknowledge and plan for any particular local church.
But one should not think that young Timothy (perhaps 30 years old, or older) was not highly qualified for the office of bishop. He was under the direct teaching of the great apostle Paul for many years, and had many experiences including imprisonment and other suffering. Surely some of the Eleven Apostles were younger men, but they were highly qualified by the Lord Himself before being placed in positions of leadership. The apostle John, for example, lived more than 60 years after Pentecost.
Concerning the office of deacon (diakonos), they are not overseers, but ministers of temporal needs of the sheep. Here, again, we have a general term of "servant" used. A deacon is a servant (diakonos), but not all servants hold the office of deacon. And there are women in the congregations who have the gift of service, but it is unscriptural for a woman to hold the office of deacon. There is no such word in the Scriptures as "deaconess." Phoebe was a servant (diakonos, Romans 16:1), but did not hold the office of deacon, just as the apostle Paul was a servant (diakonos, Colossians 1:23 NIV), but did not hold the office of deacon. All Christians should be servants (diakonos), but not all Christians should hold the office of deacon.
This Greek word also translates "minister." For example, in Ephesians 3:7 the apostle Paul said, "Whereof I was made a minister [diakonos], according to the gift of the grace of God...." Again, it is not used to denote an office.
Deacons (diakonos) also should be highly qualified men. Not only should they meet the qualifications set forth in Paul's first epistle to Timothy, but they must be "full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom" (Acts 6:3). (And, obviously, overseers also should meet this requirement.) Being full of the Holy Ghost is all-important. From among the deacons we can expect God to raise up mighty men, such as Philip and Steven, to no longer serve as deacons, but to be evangelists, or to do other work in the ministry.
It takes men who are full of wisdom to be deacons (which, in a large congregation would be full-time work if carried out according to the Scriptures). Properly handling the ministry of temporal needs among the believers takes great wisdom. Deacons must discern what are "needs" and what are merely "wants" in providing for qualified widows and others in need.